February 17, 2023

“The only place I saw myself playing was in Winnipeg”

Rasheed Bailey certainly had options from other Canadian Football League teams. Options with more term. And options worth considerably more money.

Yet, his heart kept pulling him back to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and when he put his name on a new one-year contract with the club – for what he confirmed on Friday was much less money – his decision was ultimately based on a few key factors, the biggest of which was this: He just couldn’t walk away from his teammates and those lifelong bonds, from the championship-calibre squad still intact, and from a place that gave him a football home in 2019.

“How did this come about?” began Bailey in an emotinal chat with from Philadelphia, his hometown. “It took a lot of sacrifice. It took a lot of self-reflecting. The only place I saw myself playing was in Winnipeg.

“It gets me emotional. The tears start to fall. I just want to play with my family. And that’s the most important thing – my brothers – I just couldn’t let them go. I know how much I mean to this team, and I know God is going to use me in a different way than I’ve ever been used before in my life. I know I’m the only person probably strong enough to handle this.”

‘This’ refers to Bailey’s free agency drama over the past couple of weeks. The 29-year-old receiver posted career numbers in 2021 and then bested them last season when he pulled in 63 passes for 729 yards and nine TDs. Those totals, understandably, had his phone ringing in free agency.

The other layer came with the Blue Bombers locking up Nic Demski and then luring Kenny Lawler back from Edmonton on the first day of the market opening. Those two signings seemed to make it all but a given Bailey, largely due to cap restrictions, would sign elsewhere.

Except no one understood how deeply Bailey’s commitment to the Blue Bombers was until he agreed to stay and play for less in what would best be described as a cap-friendly deal.

“I sat here thinking – and it’s taken a while to accept all of the things that took place – but I’m here and the sour taste I have in my mouth from losing that championship game by one point is one of the main reasons why I said, ‘Whatever it’s going to take,’” he said. “I don’t want people to feel bad for me, I want people to respect the fact I chose this decision because in my heart I know it’s the right move.

“People may look at me like I made the wrong decision, but I can live with the fact that I sacrificed everything. I can live with the fact I’m willing to put it all on the line. This is not a make-believe story. This will be a part of my legacy and I can live with the fact I can suit up with Kenny (Lawler), I can suit up with Demski, I can suit up with Woli (Drew Wolitarsky), I can suit up with Zach (Collaros), I can suit up with Yoshi (Jermarcus Hardrick), Willie (Jefferson)…

“I watched Kenny’s press conference the other day (when Lawler pitched for Bailey’s return). That was emotional. And we cried on the phone not 20 minutes ago because we wanted to be back together. The money didn’t make it right and it was ugly, but I said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’ And I’m here.”

Bailey’s value to the receiving corps goes beyond his statistics. He’s durable – having not missed a game over the past two years – and he does a lot of dirty work that often goes unnoticed, like blocking for other receivers or moving closer to the line in pass protection.

Not to be overlooked is the miles he travelled before signing with the Blue Bombers, from first signing as an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles to shots with the B.C. Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers. He first flashed his skills to Blue Bombers brass during a free agent camp in Bradenton, Florida back in April of 2019. He was hungry then and remains so to this day.

“I’ve been through so much in those four walls,” he said of the Blue Bombers locker room. “I’ve lost myself and found myself again. I know everybody says it’s a business and you can’t say ‘family’ because nobody outside understands it. But I wasn’t going to be able to live with knowing I had an opportunity to come back and went somewhere else instead.

“The money will come from somewhere and it may be down the road, but if I can do this one more time and this can happen the way it should go this season, I’m willing to do it.

“I’ll look back at this and tell my kids, ‘That’s your dad.’ This tells everyone that close to me that I was willing to make a sacrifice to keep that family together.”

A deeply spiritual man, Bailey has also come to recognize another important factor. The earning window may only be open for so long for CFL players, but so, too, is the legacy window and that’s why he was so reluctant to pull up stakes and settle in somewhere else.

“That is a short window,” said. “Everybody wants to get paid. Everybody. And everybody that puts the work in deserves to get paid. I chose a different route and maybe my reward comes later. Maybe my reward is us holding that trophy again. When the time comes, the blessing will come. This is the path I’ve chosen and now we’re going to see where it takes me. But I’m here. I’m here.”